S tories often tell as much about the teller as the subject of the story. They say something about the listener too. For instance there is this well-known story about Rav Yisrael Zeev Gustman a spiritual giant who belonged to the generation before the Holocaust and afterwards established yeshivos in New York and Eretz Yisrael.
When Rav Gustman met Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky the Steipler Gaon for the first time he introduced himself as “Gustman from Vilna.” The Steipler asked him if his father was in Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky’s beis din. Rav Gustman answered no and the Steipler pressed further. Perhaps it was an uncle or other relation? Upon receiving a negative reply to this as well the Gaon realized that the young man standing in front of him was the dayan himself.
The story beautifully illustrates Rav Gustman’s greatness in Torah — he was chosen to serve as a dayan in Reb Chaim Ozer’s beis din when he was only 22 — and his humility. It’s easy to see why a mashgiach would want to include it in a shmuess.
But I happened to know the story wasn’t true. Some years ago my father-in-law Rav Strauss who served as the rav of Shaare Zedek Medical Center told me that when Rav Gustman was hospitalized there he started to ask him about “the story with the Steipler.” Rav Gustman cut him off and said “Do me a favor and don’t mention the Steipler to me. It causes me agmas nefesh [anguish] because I didn’t merit to meet him.”
So that’s what I believed for years. The anecdote about their meeting was made up — they never met. However a few months ago I was told by a reliable source that the story did in fact take place — but not with the Steipler. It happened when Rav Gustman met the Tchebiner Rav for the first time.
Was this the last word?
When Rav Ephraim Galinsky and I had an opportunity to meet Rav Moshe Elazar Lipka — a confidant of Rav Gustman for many years as well as the author of the foreword to the biography Rav Gustman which was published in English earlier this year and will come out in Hebrew in Kislev — the first thing we did was check the veracity of this new version. Rav Lipka immediately confirmed that the incident occurred with the Tchebiner Rav — and that’s the way it appears in the biography.
Rav Lipka is today rosh kollel of Yakar Mordechai and rosh yeshivah of Yeshivas Ziv Yisrael which is named after his rebbi Rav Gustman. Located in the Jerusalem’s Nachlaot neighborhood the yeshivah serves both Israeli and English-speaking bochurim — a reflection of the path Rav Lipka’s own life has taken.
“He had knowledge about everything.” Rav Yisrael Zeev Gustman (R) with his talmid and confidant Rav Moshe Elazar Lipka
He was born in Marburg Germany where after the war his grandfather served as rav after being released from a displaced person’s camp. Rav Lipka immigrated with his parents to the United States when he was four months old. There he became a close talmid of Rabbi Avigdor Miller ztz”l having been brought up in Rav Miller’s shul in New York. When he was 16 Rav Lipka went to learn at Rav Gustman’s Yeshivas Netzach Yisrael–Ramailes which was located in Brooklyn.
“My maggid shiur at the time was Rav Yissachar Frankel ztz”l a Yerushalmi illui ” Rav Lipka recalls. “I asked him which yeshivah to go to. He replied ‘What’s the question? No one else even reaches Rav Gustman’s ankles!’ I had never heard of him until then.
“My father brought me for a farher to the Rosh Yeshivah who asked me what we were learning. When he heard that it was Kiddushin he asked me why the first mishnah lists a shtar [a marriage contract] as a way of creating a marital bond when it essentially is a form of kesef [money; marrying a woman by giving her something of monetary value]. There are various answers to the question and I said what Rav Frankel had told us that Rashi on the gemara and Rashi on the Rif say two different reasons. He accepted me immediately.”
According to Rav Lipka, there were between 100 and 120 bochurim in the yeshivah — which in those days was considered a big yeshivah. Some of them studied there only part of the day, because the US draft was still in force and if someone was studying for the clergy he received an exemption. “Rav Gustman took them in, regardless of who they were, and invariably they were pulled in and began learning in depth, the way the Rosh Yeshivah did.”
In the beginning, Rav Lipka joined the first shiur, which was given by Rav Yisrael Ezriel Zalisky ztz”l. “He taught me how to learn,” Rav Lipka comments. After a year, the usual procedure was for everyone to move on to the second shiur; it was only during the third year that the bochurim could join Rav Gustman’s shiur, which was the most advanced.
“I felt I knew how to learn better than everyone else did and asked the Rosh Yeshivah if I could advance straight to his lecture. He refused. But when he saw how disappointed I was, he suggested I stay another year by Rav Yisrael Ezriel and then skip to his shiur. In hindsight, it was for the best. The Rosh Yeshivah always knew how to give a person advice that was perfect for him. It was really incredible — he was very sharp and clever, he had knowledge about everything.”
Tragedies and Miracles
That knowledge was hard-earned. Like so many of his generation, Rav Gustman experienced unimaginable tragedy during the war. But he was strengthened by what he had endured, not broken.
Rav Gustman was born on the 13th of Tammuz, 5668 (1908) in Skolka, near Bialystok. His father, Reb Avraham Tzvi, was a talmid chacham who close to the Chofetz Chaim, and made his livelihood as a lumber merchant. Already in his youth Rav Gustman was known as an iluy, and by the age of ten he knew by heart Shishah Sidrei Mishnah with the commentaries of the Tosafos Yom Tov and Tosafos Rav Akiva Eiger.
When he was almost 12, he went to learn at Rav Shimon Shkop’s yeshivah in Grodno. By the time Rav Gustman was 16, he was fluent in both Talmud Bavli and Talmud Yerushalmi. At the age of 22, he married Sarah, the daughter of Rav Meir Bassin, the Rosh Yeshivah of Ramailes Yeshivah and a dayan in Reb Chaim Ozer’s beis din. When Rav Bassin was niftar between the time of the engagement and the wedding, the chassan was chosen to take his father-in-law’s place both as a rav and as a member of the beis din. He was also appointed to the staff of Ramailes Yeshivah.
During the war Rav Gustman experienced brutal suffering — his young son, Meir Hy”d, was taken from his arms and murdered in front of his eyes, while he was beaten several times and even shot during a mass killing — but he also experienced numerous miracles. He and his wife and daughter were eventually able to escape from Vilna to the forest, where they joined the partisans. After the war, they returned to Vilna.
“After World War II, after all of the atrocities he endured, he felt a responsibility to try to rebuild the community in Vilna,” Rav Lipka explains. “He was the only surviving dayan in the city and there were many cases of agunos that needed deciding. He didn’t have seforim, but he managed to procure the volume of the responsa of the Noda B’Yehudah that deals with these issues, and he paskened based on that.”
But after the Communists reentered Vilna in 5704 (1944), observing Yiddishkeit became problematic. “Everything he did to promote religion was against the will of ‘Papa’ Stalin ym”s,” Rav Lipka comments.
Rav Lipka digresses to recount a story from the early days of the war, before the Nazi occupation, when Vilna was still under Russian control — but there will be a “post-war punchline” afterward. The local commissar, the Communist party’s representative, had a problem. It was winter and no one was going to work because they didn’t have boots. So the commissar ordered boots from Moscow. “When the shipment came, they discovered that the crates only contained left boots. The commissar refused to accept the facts, because ‘Papa’ didn’t make mistakes! When Rav Chaim Ozer heard about it, he asked to see a map of the railway lines. After studying it for a few moments, he sent Rav Gustman — who had learned to speak Russian in the course of his work with the beis din and from the need to deal with the authorities — to tell the commissar that the train cars containing the boots for the right feet were in the Bialystok railway station.”
Rav Gustman rather naturally expressed apprehension — the commissar wasn’t exactly friendly toward religious Jews — but Rav Chaim Ozer assured him that all would be well. At first, Rav Gustman couldn’t get into the Communists’ headquarters. But when he told them he had come about the boots — the burning issue of the day — they let him in.
“He passed on Rav Chaim Ozer’s message. At first, the commissar was very angry that they were pestering him with mystical nonsense, and he threatened to arrest Rav Chaim Ozer and shoot Rav Gustman on the spot. The Rav kept his cool and told him, ‘What does it hurt to check? Maybe he’s right?’ The commissar made some phone calls, and discovered that the missing boots were indeed on a train car parked in Bialystok. After that, he became a great admirer of Rav Chaim Ozer and Rav Gustman.”
It was this same commissar who helped save Rav Gustman’s life after the war. “He himself came to the Rosh Yeshivah on Pesach and told him, ‘You have to flee tonight. They’re sending you to Siberia tomorrow!’ Rav Gustman expressed reservations about leaving — it would be the second day of Yom Tov. The commissar, however, was adamant. ‘I am also Jewish,’ he revealed. ‘This is pikuach nefesh. Take your wife and daughter and escape.’ They left that night.”
If Not for Torah
Rav Lipka adds, “The Rosh Yeshivah never told us about what he went through ‘just because.’ When we reached a sugya where it was relevant, he would share something with us. In his daily shiur, he taught every line of Gemara, every Rashi, and every Tosafos. He stressed that one must not skip anything. Sometimes he would say the words of Tosafos so quickly that we couldn’t understand what he said, but he never skipped. When we learned the gemara in Gittin about the Churban, he told us some of the horrors he lived through, because they related to things the gemara wrote about.”
To give an example, Rav Lipka mentions the gemara that quotes the pasuk, “kaspam bachutzos yashlichu — they threw their silver into the streets” (Yechezkel 7:19). “Rav Gustman told us that after he escaped the fate of the other rabbanim, when the Nazis passed him over for dead, he was the only posek left in the city. He shaved his beard and managed to avoid the authorities, although they searched for him. One Shabbos, there was an order that all the Jews had to go to the Great Synagogue. While they were standing in line, word got out that when each person arrived he was searched. If the Nazis found valuables, they removed them and shot the poor soul on the spot. A fellow standing there had a problem. He had many diamonds sewed into the lining of his coat. The Rosh Yeshivah asked him if he could get them out. When he replied in the affirmative, Rav Gustman took them from him and threw them one by one into the muddy ground so they would not be visible. This was the actualization of ‘kaspam bachutzos yashlichu.’ The Jew survived that particular incident, but sadly, he didn’t survive the war. In general, whenever Rav Gustman met someone from Vilna after the war, he was very emotional. Before the war 100,000 Jews lived there. Only one in a thousand survived.”
Rav Lipka gives another example. “Once during the daily shiur Rav Gustman noticed that one of the talmidim was upset about something. The Rosh Yeshivah said, ‘If the Germans murdered my son in front of my eyes and I’m not upset, then you shouldn’t be either.’
“Rav Gustman then mentioned his rebbetzin, who lost more than one hundred rabbanim from her extended family during the war. Afterward, the Rebbetzin became withdrawn and spoke very little. The only weddings she attended were those of her daughter and the son of the secretary of the yeshivah, because she had given her word that she would. She wasn’t able to watch people dancing after what she saw in the Holocaust. Rav Gustman finished his answer to the talmid by saying that he also would have been like the Rebbetzin, ‘lulei Torascha sha’ashuai,’ if not for Torah. I have the Rashba, she doesn’t.’ ”
So we don’t misunderstand his words, Rav Lipka hastens to explain, “The Rosh Yeshivah afforded her great respect; he even stood up for her. He enumerated three reasons for this: she was the daughter of Rav Meir , she was an eishes chaver [the wife of a talmid chacham], and she was ‘Saraleh.’
“By this last, he was referring to something that Reb Chaim Ozer said to him. Rebbetzin Gustman once came as a young girl to Reb Chaim Ozer with her father after Shabbos. She sat on the lap of the gadol hador while he was saying the Ribon Haolamim tefillah of Motzaei Shabbos. When he finished he asked her which shaar mentioned in this prayer was the most important, and she replied the shaar of siyata d’Shmaya, because that is the key to all the rest. Years later, when Rav Gustman came to consult the Rav about something, Reb Chaim Ozer said to him, ‘You have Saraleh, ask her.’ ”
There are so many stories about Rav Gustman’s experiences during the war, but Rav Lipka concludes with this one: “While the Rosh Yeshivah was a young dayan in Vilna, the Chofetz Chaim came to meet with Rav Chaim Ozer. They needed to convene a beis din for some reason, and they asked Rav Gustman to join as the third member. The Chofetz Chaim and Rav Chaim Ozer had a disagreement as to who should sit in the middle [as the Av Beis Din]. Each insisted that the other sit there. In the end, as a compromise, they sat the young Rav Gustman in the middle, between the two gedolei hador. What could be a greater honor than that?
“Later, he would say, ‘After the honor shown to me by Rav Chaim Ozer on the one hand and the humiliation I sustained at the hands of the Nazis on the other, neither kavod nor bizyonos can have an effect on me anymore.’ ”
Vilna in New York
Rav Gustman spent only about a year in post-war Vilna. The family first escaped to France, in the hope they would be able to continue on to Eretz Yisrael. They waited for their permits for about half a year. “He gave shiurim there in Yiddish,” says Rav Lipka. “Everyone understood that ‘Torah ne’emeras bechol lashon [Torah was given in all languages],’ as he put it.”
When the family couldn’t get the necessary certificates, they moved to the United States instead. Rav Lipka explains that it was Rav Aharon Kotler who helped Rav Gustman obtain the visas; the two had known each other back in Europe. “The first time they met was at the chasunah of Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, who had been Rav Gustman’s rebbi in yeshivah ketanah in Grodno. Reb Chaim was only 18 at the time and they became friends.
“Reb Chaim became engaged to the daughter of Reb Lazer Yudel Finkel, the rosh yeshivah of Mir. The wedding took place in the town of Mir and some bochurim traveled to participate in the simchah. All the gedolim were in attendance, and each day of the sheva brachos a different rosh yeshivah gave a shiur. Rav Aharon, as the Rosh Yeshivah of Kletzk, was one of the guest lecturers. Rav Gustman attended the shiur and in the middle of it, he put his head on the table and began screaming, ‘S’iz ah mishnah farkert! S’iz ah mishnah farkert! [There’s a mishnah that contradicts this!],’ without elaborating. Rav Gustman was only 21 years old then, and Reb Aharon was known to reply very sharply when people commented during his lectures. Reb Elchanan Wasserman was there as well. He knew the Rosh Yeshivah, as Rav Gustman had been the chavrusa of Reb Elchanan’s son Reb Naftali, and went over to find out what he meant. He then went over to Reb Aharon and explained. Reb Aharon thought a moment and then said, ‘I’ll say the shiur again tomorrow.’ ”
Before we turn to New York, Rav Lipka can’t resist sharing a story that took place in Grodno. “Everyone wanted to learn with Reb Chaim b’chavrusa but he refused. He himself approached Rav Gustman and suggested they learn together, on condition that no one else knew about it. Rav Gustman replied that he had no time. After second seder he learned with the son of Reb Yerucham [the Mirrer Mashgiach Rav Yerucham Levovitz] until one in the morning. Reb Chaim had an easy solution: ‘Go to bed at one and I’ll wake you at two. That’s enough time to sleep.’ Rav Gustman was worried he would be tired, but Reb Chaim promised him that he wouldn’t be.
“And that’s how it was — every night Reb Chaim dragged him out of bed at 2 a.m. and they went to learn in a quiet beis medrash in Grodno for the rest of the night. They davened in the morning with the balabatim, and came to first seder a bit late, at nine o’clock.
“Rav Shlomo Harkavy, the mashgiach, gave mussar indirectly. He spoke to one person about something, intending the message for someone else. He called over Reb Chaim and said, ‘How much can someone sleep? Not only don’t they come to davening in yeshivah, but they even come late to seder every day!’ Being that they made up to keep it a secret, they didn’t tell the Mashgiach, but he stopped bothering them about it.
Rav Lipka adds that many years later, after Reb Chaim was niftar, Rav Gustman went to be menachem avel. “They were speaking about the niftar’s great hasmadah, and someone recounted that Reb Chaim had seven chavrusas a day, each of whom he learned with for two hours — and this was in his old age after having a stroke. Rav Gustman retorted that it was no big deal to be such a masmid if one had the deep love of Torah that Reb Chaim had.”
While it was Rav Aharon Kotler who arranged the Gustmans’ visas to enter the United States, Rav Lipka explains that it was Rav Moshe Feinstein who helped Rav Gustman obtain his first position in New York, which was at Tomchei Temimim Yeshivah of Lubavitch.
“He even lent Rav Gustman a kapote for the job interview,” Rav Lipka says. “The Rosh Yeshivah had already been a maggid shiur in the Chabad yeshivah ketanah in Vilna. After four years he left Tomchei Temimim and had no livelihood. He wanted to open a yeshivah but, as he related to me, his wife was hesitant. The Rebbetzin said to him, ‘If it will help in your learning, fine, open a yeshivah. If not, just sit and learn.’ ”
Rav Gustman did decide to open a yeshivah, which he named Yeshivas Netzach Yisrael-Ramailes, in memory of Yeshivas Ramailes in Vilna.
“Running a yeshivah wasn’t easy for him because he was a man of truth,” Rav Lipka comments. “He wasn’t willing to accept a donation if he didn’t think he was deserving of it. When offered a donation, he would check if the donor was able to afford it. Sometimes he would tell the person, ‘This is not for you.’ Or he would ask him, ‘Are you sure that you can give this? Will you have enough for your wife and children?’ He once refused a contribution, telling the donor, ‘No, you need the money now.’ ”
Rav Lipka adds that even though he was always aware of this attribute of his rebbi, he didn’t realize how unique it was until the biography of Rav Gustman was published. “The Rosh Yeshivah was also a posek. We saw him disagree with others many times, but he had a firm rule about deciding halachah: first assess the person, and only after decide the halachah. To only repeat what the Shulchan Aruch says is not a psak, it’s only quoting a source. To pasken is the role of a moreh hora’ah, who is given special siyata d’Shmaya. The first step is to ‘pasken’ who is the one asking the question — to assess the person. When someone whom he didn’t know came to ask him for advice he tried to get out of it, saying there are so many other rabbanim. Many times he’d tell the person to come back the next day, and then he would ask for the particulars again, going into the details carefully. One time someone completely changed the version of the question at hand, and he refused to decide the question at all, suspecting that the person was lying.
“He frequently gave different answers to different people for the same question. Once a woman came to ask him a question. Before the war, she had been religious but due to the terrible things she experienced she left Torah and mitzvos. Later in life, she became a baalas teshuvah. Her question was regarding the halachah in Shulchan Aruch that if someone intentionally doesn’t light Shabbos candles then she must add an extra candle every Friday night for the rest of her life for each Shabbos that she missed. According to her count, she would need to light hundreds of candles every week. What should she do? The Rosh Yeshivah told her to check how many weeks it was and give a penny to tzedakah for each week.
After she left I asked him the source of this novel answer. He told me that he had a tradition from Reb Chaim Ozer that in matters pertaining to teshuvah one must assess what the person is able to accept on themselves, and once a moreh hora’ah decides what that is, then the decision and penance is accepted in heaven.
“People came to him for actual business advice,” Rav Lipka adds. “Those who listened saw great success. I remember something that happened before we came to Eretz Yisrael. Someone with money to invest came to ask him what to do with it. Next to the Shaarei Chessed neighborhood in Jerusalem there was a large empty lot and the man asked if he should purchase it. After looking into all of the details, the Rosh Yeshivah told him to buy it. The man didn’t listen, and the Wolfson Towers were later built there.
“Another time a couple came with a very difficult issue. He listened to the different sides of the question and then went outside and walked up and down the sidewalk for about 20 minutes. He came back and told them his decision. He explained what he was doing while walking outside by himself: When a person has a dilemma, he is actually the one in the best position to decide the issue — he knows the details and sides of the question the best. Why can’t he decide it himself? Because he has a personal interest in the outcome. An outsider can be impartial. On the other hand, to truly be able to decide an issue one has to feel the problem. That’s why he went down, to take the time to internalize the problem and feel it as though it was his own.”
A “Rav Preida” of Our Time
In 5731 (1971), Rav Gustman moved to Eretz Yisrael. On the advice of the Tchebiner Rav, he reestablished his yeshivah in Jerusalem’s Rechavia neighborhood.
Rav Lipka, who by then was giving shiurim at the Brooklyn yeshivah, sought out the advice of Rabbi Avigdor Miller and Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky ztz”l. Should he stay in the United States or also make aliyah? They both strongly encouraged him to accompany Rav Gustman and help establish Yeshivas Netzach Yisrael in Jerusalem. In addition to serving as a rebbi, he served as a rosh Yeshivah after Rav Gustman’s petirah on the 28th of Sivan, 5751 (1991). Today, Rav Gustman’s son-in-law, Rav Michel Berniker, is the head of Yeshivas Netzach Yisrael.
In Eretz Yisrael as well, many people sought out Rav Gustman for his sage advice. “A young avreich whom he didn’t know came to get his advice about something,” Rav Lipka recalls. “The Rosh Yeshivah realized that the man didn’t have proper guidance and began to counsel him in all areas of his life. A year later, the fellow came with a complaint that his wife was a spendthrift. The Rosh Yeshivah took out a paper and pen and they listed all of the family’s expenses together. He asked the avreich how much he thought they should be spending on each item. At the end of the accounting, they figured out that the wife had ‘wasted’ three hundred lirot over the entire year.
The Rosh Yeshivah told him that it was not worthwhile to make shalom bayis problems over such a small amount, and then gave him a good piece of advice for avoiding stress — let the wife handle all of the finances for the next year. After a year, the man himself asked his wife to continue taking care of the family finances, and so it continues until this day. The Rav was extremely smart and was able to get to the root of the problem right away.”
Another problem wasn’t so easy to resolve. “I remember during the period right after we opened the yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael that someone called the office from the US. The Rosh Yeshivah told me later that it was one of the most difficult questions he ever had to deal with. He didn’t tell me who had called, but shared with me that the question was if the person could sleep for five minutes less. Apparently, this couple was in touch with him periodically. The husband was a serious ben Torah who utilized every spare moment for learning Torah. His wife felt that he wasn’t sleeping enough and they agreed to have a ‘din Torah’ by Rav Gustman. The Rosh Yeshivah went over the man’s daily schedule carefully and finally instructed him exactly how much he should sleep. Every now and then, the masmid called to say that he felt he could take five more minutes off his allotted sleep time and learn a bit more. Now he had called again to get permission for another five minutes; Rav Gustman told him he would think it over.”
Of course, Rav Gustman’s main efforts went toward his yeshivah. He eventually published his lectures, known for their depth and comprehensive analysis, in a series of seforim called Kuntrusei Shiurim. They cover the masechtos Nedarim, Kesubos, Gittin, Kiddushin, Bava Kama, Bava Metzia, and Bava Basra.
When he gave semichah to his students, he demanded that they know Shulchan Aruch — the Mechaber and the Rama — by heart, says Rav Lipka. They also had to thoroughly know all of the commentaries printed on the page of the Shulchan Aruch — the Gra, Rav Akiva Eiger, the Pri Megadim. “That’s how he tested his talmidim on the whole first part of Yoreh Deah.”
What was it like to sit and learn in the beis medrash?
“I’ll tell you a story,” says Rav Lipka, whose store of memories is seemingly endless. “When I was a bochur in the yeshivah I once came into the beis medrash during bein hasedarim to learn. There was only one other bochur learning there then. The Rosh Yeshivah had his own entrance and I saw that he came in and sat down next to the boy; neither of them noticed me. He first asked the boy his name and then what he was learning. The guy had a good head, but had some kind of learning disability. He was learning the masechta Berachos, the gemara discussing the machlokes between Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel about the order of the berachos of Kiddush. The Rosh Yeshivah told him, ‘Let’s learn together.’ He put his hand on the bochur’s shoulder and said, ‘I’ll read the gemara.’
He read a few lines, translating them to Yiddish, and asked the fellow if he understood it. Hearing that he did, the Rosh Yeshivah went on to do the same thing with Rashi. After getting the bochur’s affirmation about understanding Rashi also, he started all over again. After the second time learning the gemara and then the Rashi, he did it a third time, and then again. They learned it through seven times! The Rosh Yeshivah learned the same lines with him again and again until he felt the student truly understood. He was Rav Preida of our time!” Rav Lipka enthuses, referring to the Amora who famously was willing to go over the same thing with a student hundreds of times.
But he could show anger when he needed to, Rav Lipka adds. Of course, there is a story: “He once found out that one of the bochurim was davening in a local shul. He called over the bochur in my presence and gave it to him, telling him ‘bamakom rinah sham tefillah [one should daven where he learns Torah].’ It would be better to daven alone, but in the yeshivah. In the middle of screaming at him with a severe countenance, he turned around and gave me a broad smile — and then turned back, put on his angry look again, and picked up where he left off. Afterwards he told me, ‘I know how to show anger when I need to. If I wouldn’t be a rosh yeshivah, I certainly would be the best actor in the world. I was never angry my entire life at another Jew and before the war even not at a gentile.’ ”
About that Garden
If Rav Lipka is an excellent storyteller, it is perhaps due to the fact that Rav Gustman encouraged him and others to speak in public. “As part of his role as dayan in Vilna he had to darshan,” Rav Lipka explains. “He encouraged us to learn public speaking at a young age too.”
When Rabbi David Page wrote his biography of Rav Gustman — he had heard about Rav Gustman from his chavrusas, such as Rav Nechemiah Rosenberg, one of the Rosh Yeshivah’s talmidim — he turned to Rav Lipka for assistance, both as a source of information and as someone who could review the accuracy of the material he had collected over many years from a variety of sources.
This brings us back to where we began — a question about the accuracy of yet another famous story concerning Rav Gustman. The story goes like this:
One day in prewar Vilna, Reb Chaim Ozer and Rav Gustman went for a walk in a field outside the city. As they were walking, the gadol began to identify different types of plants, telling his young companion which were suitable for eating, which had curative properties, and which were dangerous. For Rav Gustman, every word that Reb Chaim Ozer spoke was sacred and he filed away the information.
A few short years later, Reb Chaim Ozer was gone and the Torah world was in flames. The Gustman family was hiding in the forest, where their sole source of nourishment was plants. Thanks to his rebbi, Rav Gustman knew which he could eat and which he could not.
In later years, when the Rosh Yeshivah was living in Jerusalem, he insisted on watering the plants in the yeshivah’s garden, a display of gratitude to the plants that had sustained him during the war.
Is the story true? Was this really why Rav Gustman insisted on watering the garden himself?
“I’ll tell you the truth,” says Rav Lipka, “I heard a few different reasons for that. The well-known reason is that he survived the war by eating edible plants in the forest. However, he told me once that when the Nazis gathered all the Vilna dayanim together and viciously murdered them, they literally combed their flesh off, including the senior dayan, the aged gaon Rav Chanoch Henoch Eiger, the author of the Marcheshes. Rav Gustman was wounded and collapsed bleeding profusely. The Germans ym”s thought he was dead and moved on. Afterwards he managed to drag himself away from there and hide behind some bushes — and that’s why he had hakaras hatov to plants.
“Then there’s another reason. He once instructed a chassan to pick some flowers from his garden to make the kallah happy. He told the young man that he watered the garden himself because the Rebbetzin liked to look out at the garden from their window and enjoyed the flowers.
“It seems the Rosh Yeshivah told different people what they needed to hear,” says Rav Lipka about his beloved rebbi, whose own suffering never prevented him from opening his heart to another Jew and giving that person exactly the advice and encouragement they needed.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 679)
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